The 2019 season saw the introduction of the same ball used in Major League Baseball across the Triple-A level of minor league baseball. The change in baseball has seen PCL and International League numbers explode the way MLB numbers have also exploded over the last 3-4 seasons. That change shined the light on a number of players who were off prospect radars coming into 2019 but now are certainly getting legit notice let alone major league opportunities.
The impact of the ball on minor league baseball
While many can mention other factors (altered swings, better training, etc.), the work on those factors has been nearly constant over the last 5+ seasons, and yet, we've not seen an explosion like this of offense in minor league baseball until the ball was changed. In fact, nearly every other level of minor league baseball has seen a home run decrease in 2019 outside the Triple-A level.
With one week left in the minor league season, two International League teams have cleared 200 home runs on the season, with one team very likely to clear 200 (Scranton Wilkes/Barre at 199 through Aug.27) and one other within striking distance with a big week (Gwinnett with 191 through Aug.27). The league as a whole was just shy of 2,325 home runs at the end of play on Aug.26, likely to finish around 2,400-2,450 on the season.
For comparison, the International League team leader in 2018, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, hit 145 home runs, and the league as a whole hit 1,555 home runs. With 42 games remaining from Aug.28 through Sept. 2, the league would need to average just under five home runs per game for the next week to finish with 1,000 more home runs in 2019 than 2018! This may sound impossible, but the league is averaging 2.50 home runs per game this season (through 8/26), nearly a full home run jump over the 1.6 home runs per game the league allowed in 2018.
The Pacific Coast League was already a more offensive league before the change in ball, but even then, the numbers have been astonishing. The league has clobbered over 3,000 home runs, averaging ~3.0 HR/G. The PCL has already bested its 2018 league number by over 1,000 home runs, with an average in 2018 of 1.88 HR/G.
Of course, the ball change has not only changed home run statistics. PCL hitters hit .270/.340/.423 collectively in 2018 with 4.97 runs per game. That line is up to .277/.354/.479 with 5.91 runs per game in 2019 through 8/26. The International League has seen a similar jump, going from a collective .252/.320/.389 line with 4.16 runs per game in 2018 to a .266/.342/.446 triple slash and 5.17 runs per game in 2019.
Those impressive statistics have brought forward a number of players who have not been notable prior to 2019. Let's take a look at a team of them, and examine if their numbers are going to be sustainable.
Catcher - Zack Collins, Charlotte (White Sox)
Collins may seem a strange player to appear on this list as someone who was not "notable" prior to 2019, but his star had certainly fallen off since being the 10th overall selection by the Chicago White Sox out of the University of Miami in 2016. By the time Prospects Live published their top 30 for the Sox, Collins had fallen out of the top 10 even for the White Sox.
Over his first two full seasons in the minors, Collins had hit .230, though with a .375 OBP. With the new ball, Collins seemed to find more holes in 2019, but more than anything, a strikeout rate that had previously been just shy of 30 percent at Double-A has been 26 percent this season while his walk rate went from 19.4 percent to 16.9 percent, staying very high while the strikeout rate dropped.
His catching is still below-average, and he'd be best cast as the offensive half of a catching pair for an American League team that could put him at DH now and again, but if his .291/.406/.564 AAA line in 338 plate appearances is more indicative of his future than his ground ball-riddled debut, he could re-establish his place as a premium bat.
Honorable mention - Austin Allen, El Paso (San Diego), Alex Jackson, Gwinnett (Atlanta)
In part due to the focus on quality catching in the game, Allen and Jackson are both known quantities coming into the season, but Allen has taken yet another step forward with the bat while also showing well with the glove, giving the Padres the opportunity to try out Francisco Mejia in the outfield. Jackson was once an elite draft prospect who the Braves moved behind the plate and now have seen push to an average to above-average defensive backstop along with getting his big power into games (albeit with a .220ish batting average).
First Base - Kevin Cron, Reno (Arizona)
Coming into 2019, Cron likely was more known as the brother of big leaguer C.J. Cron than as a true prospect. Ranked 19th in our Arizona preseason Top 30, Cron had shown power certainly, but few thought that he was going to be a guy to potentially hit 40 home runs, even with the new ball.
Frankly, if Cron had not been injured this season, he'd have 40 home runs in minor league baseball already (he has 39 through Aug.26), and with five home runs in his major league debut before being sent back down, he has cleared 40 home runs on the season combined between majors and minors. He's not just a pure power guy, though, as he's only struck out a combined 102 times on the year in 420 plate appearances (under 25%).
For a monster of a man (6'5" and 240-250 pounds), Cron is athletic enough to handle third base and could potentially work as a fringe average outfield defender, but his size likely will limit him defensively to first base.
Cron clubs the ball in the air (~75% line drive and fly balls in the minors and 72.5% in the majors), but he's not a pure pull guy, with the highest percentage of his balls going to center field in the minors this season and not hitting 40 percent of his batted balls to any direction, giving him good use of the field.
Honorable mentions - Seth Brown, Las Vegas (Oakland), Brian O'Grady, Louisville (Cincinnati), Jared Walsh, Salt Lake (Angels)
This could not be a more diverse trio of skillsets if I tried.
Brown is a former 23rd round pick with a solid frame from the left side of the plate. He has not seen a lot of the high contact rate that he had previously shown in the minors in 2019, but he changed his swing, resulting in a drop in ground balls of over 10 percent from 2018. Brown does use the whole field and has shown some ability in the outfield, so he could fit in the Oakland lineup as a first base/corner outfielder from the left side in a platoon role. He recently got the call to the bigs.
O'Grady is a more athletic guy, in his second year in Triple-A with the Reds org this year. He's really not seen a major change in his ground ball to fly ball rates, but what's been notable is a change he made before 2018, which was to begin smacking nearly 50 percent of his balls to pull side as a lefty hitter. He's been over that mark in 2019 in the minors. He could work some in the outfield as first base is occupied in Cincinnati, but the pull-heavy approach could be more volatile.
Walsh was more known coming into this season for his potential as a two-way player on a team who already had the most notable two-way guy in the world. He's made it to the major leagues to make appearances both in the outfield and on the mound this season, combining for 16 relief appearances this season between the majors and minors along with 31 minor league home runs. He's likely not quite good enough as a hitter or reliever to make the majors in either role, but as someone who could offer both, he could provide value as a 25th man.
Second Base - Josh VanMeter, Louisville (Cincinnati)
VanMeter was noted by Ralph in last year's list to have made swing adjustments that significantly changed his offensive results, and from my own viewing, VanMeter struck me as a sort of Dustin Pedroia-lite player (which shows how thin the line for success with that profile is, but that's another article altogether) with significantly less glove that could find a home at second, third, or left in the minors, but was probably a fringe bat-first bench candidate in the majors.
The new ball and VanMeter's previously adjusted approach meshed tremendously well at the plate, resulting in a .348/.429/.669 line at Triple-A with 14 home runs before his promotion, where he's hit .285/.372/.464 with five home runs and six steals with the Reds, posting a 11 BB% and 21.5 K%.
VanMeter is notably attacking the ball more to his pull side, but he's doing that while also elevating many more balls, seeing a ~10 percent rise in his fly balls since his swing adjustment. The biggest thing that he's doing in that combination is hitting balls hard, as seen by his 50% hard hit rate in the majors thus far, so while the defense still isn't likely to make him a Gold Glover anywhere, he could see four to five starts per week between 2B/LF with an occasional spot start at 1B/3B to be a valuable contributor (especially to fantasy owners in OBP leagues). One thing owners should note is the Reds’ insistence on sitting him vs. LHP.
Third Base - Ty France, El Paso (San Diego)
Originally a 34th round pick by the Padres in 2015 from local San Diego State, France has performed more like an early round draftee, jumping up multiple levels in each of his full seasons. France has hit for consistent average all along coming up the farm system, hitting between .267 and .278 each of his three full seasons entering 2019, but he'd never posted a slugging over .500 for a full season before 2019 - not great from a traditional power position.
Then a new ball met Ty France. Or, better yet, Ty France's bat met the new ball over and over and over in 2019. France will not be back in the minors, sadly costing him a shot at hitting .400 on the season. His stats with El Paso this year are .399/.477/.770 with 27 home runs along with an 8.6 BB% and 14.7 K%. He had twice his previous high in ISO this season.
France has the flexibility to handle second or third, and I'd be more comfortable projecting him around 30 doubles and 15-20 home runs than a guy who will hit 30 combined home runs this year continuing to hit 30+ as a big leaguer. France has not put the ball in the air at near the same rate in the majors in his debut as he did throughout his minor league career, so better performance than the .221/.273/.328 line he's posted so far is likely to come. Pretty solid for a guy no one was penciling in around Luis Urias, Manny Machado, and Fernando Tatis, Jr. coming into 2019.
Honorable mentions - Michael Brosseau, Durham (Tampa Bay), Sheldon Neuse, Las Vegas (Oakland)
The biggest story this year has been Michael Brosseau. Undrafted out of Oakland University in 2016, Brosseau leaped up the Tampa Bay system, playing across both A-ball levels in 2017, Double-A in 2018, and putting up a near-1.000 OPS for Durham before being promoted from Durham this year. A line-drive hitter with little speed and a contact-focused approach, Brosseau has put up a .282/.321/.484 line in the majors in his debut. That's in line with the type of line he's put up at every level. He's not going to put up a big OBP, and he's not going to be sexy for fantasy owners as he won't hit for big home run numbers. Brosseau has played every position but catcher and center field this season between Triple-A (even pitching a couple games in the majors).
Neuse had one of the most impressive offensive performances in college in 2016, getting drafted in the second round by the Washington Nationals before being traded to the A's in 2017. He quickly moved up to Double-A in his first full season. Then Neuse seemed to fall back in 2018 in his first exposure to Triple-A. He posted a .263/.304/.357 line with 5 HR, a 6 BB%, and a 32 K%. His second year in Triple-A has proven much better, as he's tallied a .320/.391/.555 line with 27 home runs, a 10 BB%, and a 23.4 K%. Neuse hits the ball to all fields, though he does hit the ball on the ground quite a bit (44.1%) for him to repeat this success in the majors, but he's handled second and short this year, and he could be a useful piece in an Oakland rotation in 2020.
Shortstop - Jake Cronenworth, Durham (Tampa Bay)
Coming into 2019, like Walsh, Cronenworth was known more for his likelihood to be a two-way player than his actual ability with the bat. Coming into the 2019 season, Cronenworth had never eclipsed .282 for a whole season nor a .775 OPS. This year, he's posted a .330/.421/.520 line while playing primarily at shortstop.
On the mound, Cronenworth has pitched 7 1/3 innings in 7 games, mostly as an opener. He has yet to allow an earned run, though his 1.64 WHIP says he's not quite been that good.
While Cronenworth does not have the upside of that other two-way guy in the Rays system, he could certainly provide a valuable roster fit if he can continue hitting for consistent average, handle all four infield positions, and offer something off the mound. He's putting a lot of balls on the ground, but he's also using the whole field to do so, which could allow him to keep up his performance with the bat upon promotion.
Honorable mention - Seth Mejias-Brean, El Paso (San Diego)
Mejias-Brean is on his third organization after originally being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the eighth round in 2012. He played his first games in Triple-A in 2016 in the Reds organization, spending time in the Mariners organization at the level in 2017 and 2018 before signing as a minor league free agent with the Padres.
The uptick in Mejias-Brean's statistical output has been entirely the new ball as he's hitting for a similar spread of type of hits (nearly 50 GB% leading the charge) and direction of his batted balls. While he's a good enough guy, buying stocks of Mejias-Brean is probably fool's play at this point.
Outfield - Aristides Aquino, Louisville (Cincinnati)
Aquino has been one of the elite talents in the Cincinnati system since signing nearly a decade ago at this point. He'd been with the Reds long enough that he was DFA'd this past winter and then re-signed by the Reds as a minor league free agent. Though he'd made his major league debut in 2018, he'd never played above Double-A in minor league baseball.
The power had always been there for Aquino. He posted a similar walk and strikeout rate to his previous posting, but the ball aided in the ball flying much farther when Aquino's prodigious power impacted it. His performance this year has been entirely based on a much higher home run per fly ball rate. His minor league number could be sustainable, but his major league number has been over 40 percent, a number that is third in all of baseball if you bump the plate appearances down to 50.
If he can continue a HR/FB pace somewhere between his Triple-A pace and major league pace (not impossible, as that'd be around the rate that guys like Joey Gallo, Miguel Sano, Nelson Cruz, and Christian Yelich have performed in 2019), Aquino will provide enough power to be a legit corner outfielder with a big-time arm that should be able to help fantasy owners with huge power.
Outfield - Jaylin Davis, Rochester/Sacramento (Minnesota/San Francisco)
Incredibly athletic at Appalachian State, Davis had opened the 2015 season with an incredible initial showing in fall ball and displayed tremendous athleticism in his first few games of the 2015 college season before he injured his non-throwing shoulder on a diving play. While his throwing arm was safe, his non-throwing shoulder was also his lead shoulder in his swing, and it took Davis time to get his swing back up to his quick-twitch athleticism.
Struggling to show power in the 2018 Arizona Fall League inspired Davis, and he showed up to Spring Training in 2019 with a bolstered build, adding muscle to his athletic frame. He saw his walk rate tick up as he was more selective at the plate, and his selectivity was paired with an obvious change in how he impacted the ball. He already hit 10 home runs in Double-A in the first 58 games of the year before getting promoted to the new Triple-A ball, where he's hit 25 home runs in 62 games, but he's not just hitting home runs - he's got a .310/.403/.609 slash with a 12 BB% and 25 K% strikeout rate, hitting 26 doubles and adding nine steals as well.
Davis is an athletic outfielder whose fringe-plus arm plays well alongside his athleticism in right field. He's played at least a dozen games at both of the other two outfield spots this year as well. He's taken some time to get his swing right and his additional build this year along with the Triple-A ball could allow Davis to be a diamond in the rough for the Giants that they grabbed from the Twins at the deadline. Eddy Almaguer recently wrote about why he picked up Davis in one of his dynasty leagues.
Outfield - Sam Hilliard, Albuquerque (Colorado)
While Davis may have a traditional athletic build, Hilliard came from junior college to Wichita State to the Colorado Rockies in the 15th round in 2015 looking more like an outside linebacker at 6'5" and 230-240 pounds listed (thought that could be light if you see him!) He'd shown impressive power and speed before this season, combining for 47 home runs and 90 stolen bases over his first three full seasons.
Hilliard has seen his lowest groundball rate and a nearly 5 percent raise on his percentage of balls hit to centerfield escalate his output, driving 35 home runs out this season. One of the biggest concerns for Hilliard coming into the season for scouts was his hit tool, and he's still not ironed that out (nearly 30 percent strikeout rate and .262 batting average, even with the better hitting ball, though this is on the lowest BABIP he's seen in his minor league career by nearly 50 points).
With his athleticism and noted power/speed combination, Hilliard should be on the radar of traditional scouts and fantasy players as well. Going to the Arizona Fall League should give him a chance to hone in his contact and patience akin to the work that Davis did over last offseason.
Honorable mentions - Yonathan Daza, Albuquerque (Colorado), Mike Gerber, Sacramento (San Francisco), Mark Payton, Las Vegas (Oakland)
Daza has always been a contact-oriented hitter, putting up quality batting averages throughout his minor league baseball career. To this point, he's put together a career minor league batting average of .318. What he hadn't done yet is to show legit power. This season, he's pulled the ball more than he has previously and seen more line drives. Daza's still a fourth outfield profile, but he's one that could offer a solid average if he's given extended run.
After reaching the majors in 2017, Gerber stalled at the level, really working as a "quad-A" guy the last two seasons. This year, he cut his strikeout rate significantly in the minor leagues, and the result was his finest minor league season by far, with 26 home runs and a .313/.373/.579 slash line. Gerber's already 27, and while his strikeout rate is down, it's still been just under 27 percent this season, not a great sign of discipline. However, he has above-average power and speed along with the ability to play all three outfield spots, so he could be a bench contributor for the right team hitting from the left side.
Mark Payton is the type of guy who never had ideal size (5'8" and under 200 pounds) or the right organization to truly get a shot. Originally drafted by the Yankees, Payton couldn't break through the elite raw talent in the New York system, so when he signed a minor league free agent deal with Oakland before the 2019 season, he already knew he'd be getting a more fair shake to show his true talents. He's done that and more, knocking out 30 home runs with a .325/.392/.661 line on the year, putting together an impressive 10 BB% and 17 K%. He has certainly undergone a change in his approach, dropping his groundball rate by a dozen percentage points, and putting the new ball in the air made all the difference. Payton should get a look down the stretch for the A's, and he could work as a lefty bench outfielder at the very least.
While the new ball in AAA does make it tough to project how "real" a breakout season is, each of these guys is using the same ball as major league hitters are hitting, so putting a repeat performance beyond any of them is likely going to make you look foolish somewhere. No matter what, it's been a fun year to be exposed to players that weren't really on the radar before the 2019 season!